This has not been a good week for the Obama administration, at least when it comes to responses to the popular revolt that has swept Egypt.
First, President Obama failed to make mention the mass street demonstrations in Cairo and other Egyptian Tuesday in his State of the Union Address. No one expected the president to declare his solidarity with the Egyptian people.
Despite the fact that Obama delivered his great statement on Islam and democracy in Cairo—with the June, 2009, “A New Beginning” speech, in which he urged citizens “to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed”—there’s an awareness in Washington and the world that the web of connections between U.S foreign policy and the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tends to have a paralyzing effect on the ideals of American presidents. But Obama could, at least, have mentioned that he was paying attention to a revolt that was the lead story that night in every other country on the planet.
At least Obama’s silence allowed him to avoid saying something he would soon regret.
That’s not the case with Vice President Joe Biden.
Asked about developments in Egypt during a PBS NewsHour interview this week, Biden said Mubarak should retain his grip on power.
The vice president also rejected the use of the term “dictator” to describe the Egyptian strongman who has held power for three decades, banned political parties, jailed opponents, censored the press, groomed his son for dynastic succession and unilaterally dissolved and appointed governments.
The remarkable interview of Biden began with Jim Lehrer asking: “Has the time come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go, to stand aside?”
“No,” replied Biden, who would only go so far as to say that he hoped Mubarak would “be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there.”
Asked if the popular uprisings sweeping across Arab states of the Middle East should be compared with the revolts against communist dictators of eastern European countries in the late 1980s, Biden replied, “No, I don’t.”
Then came the critical question:
Lehrer asked: “The word—the word to describe the leadership of Mubarak and Egypt... was dictator. Should Mubarak be seen as a dictator?”
“Look,” replied Biden, “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel. And I think that it would be—I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
Biden is not exactly a casual observer. He’s a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who knows the world, knows the Middle East and knows Mubarak.
While he might be inclined to choose his words carefully, it is tough to imagine a definition of “dictator” that doesn’t include Mubarak. After all, the Egyptian president's response to the current crisis was not to step down, call a new election or otherwise embrace democracy; rather, he announced that he would unilaterally dissolve the government and then just as unilaterally appoint a new one.
That's how Mubarak rolls.
According to Freedom House, which ranks countries on a scale from 1 (most free) to 7 (least free), Egypt's Political Rights Score is 6, while its Civil Liberties Score is 5. On the democracy measure, that means that Egypt ranks no better than Iran.
Human Rights Watch describes Mubarak as an Egyptian leader who stands “third in an unbroken line of military autocrats dating back to the 1952 revolution.”
Mubarak’s tenure, the group says, has been characterized by “30 years of intransigence on political reform.”
Indeed, according to Human Rights Watch, circumstances have grown worse in recent years as “the Egyptian government (has) extended the near permanent State of Emergency for a further two years, prolonging the suspension of basic political freedoms for all Egyptians.”
A military autocrat who is intransigent on political reform and who has suspended basic political freedoms for all citizens? That sure sounds like a dictator.
And Biden sure sounds like an apologist for a regime so unpopular that hundreds of thousands of Egyptians—of all backgrounds and ideologies—are risking their lives to replace it.
This vice president has often been a voice of reason within the Obama administration.
But, at a point when he should have been helping the president to embrace and recognize the future, Biden certainly seemed to be standing on the wrong side of history.